Who's in charge here?
November 8, 2012 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Why did I sit on the Mass Pike yesterday for 3 hrs and who would do something if I complained about it?

Yesterday, I did my usual one-hour drive home, primarily on the Mass Pike. Between exits 10 and 9 westbound, traffic came to an abrupt stop and I spent the next three hours mostly sitting, with brief intervals of rolling, until I finally reached exit 9. I guess some accidents involving tractor trailers were the acute cause of this mess, but the real cause was the extremely poor condition of the roads. It seems to me that proper pre-treatment of the roads plus vigilant, continuing plowing would have kept the effects of the storm to a minor inconvenience; as it was, I am surprised I made it home intact. Even if that wouldn't have been enough, just leaving the roads unplowed as they were didn't seem like an effective option.

It was very upsetting to me, because I feel that some governing body should be ensuring the safety of the roads, but the complete lack of effort I saw made me think that no one is on top of this and the roads will just be complete anarchy whenever it snows. Even if plows had been hired, they weren't actually doing much. Evidence of very little effort being made included 1) the heinous condition of the toll plaza, which should have been easily accessible to plows and salters, 2) when I got stuck on an offramp because trucks in front of me were stuck, the person answering the phone at the non-emergency line of the police station had no advice and refused to send an officer to the scene, insisting that I should "just go on to the next exit" (repeated descriptions of what 'stuck' meant did not help), and 3) while I was sitting there the 3 hrs, my husband was monitoring the MassDOT map of the area -- for at least a portion of this time, the map showed things as green/all good and would have been encouraging to someone wondering if it was alright to venture out.

tl;dr Who is in charge of keeping the interstates in MA safe, and is there any point in complaining to that agency?
posted by Tandem Affinity to Law & Government (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, the Department of Transportation is in charge of it. You could complain to them; or perhaps to your legislature, which presumably holds the purse strings, if you think MassDOT needs more funding for snowplows and emergency wreckers.
posted by hattifattener at 7:57 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

your elected officials?
posted by lockestockbarrel at 7:58 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The governor appears once a month on this radio show and takes questions, and these are the types of questions people ask. I'd contact him this way.


Ask the Governor
Mass. Governor Deval Patrick sits down with Jim and Margery each month for "Ask the Governor" where you the listener get your chance to ask your questions directly to the Governor, or via email at askthegovernor@969bostontalks.com
posted by FlyByDay at 8:11 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

This Boston Globe editorial about the epic 45-mile traffic backup that hit the Mass Pike in October contains some background on the current management of the Pike and plans for upgrades.

That said, yesterday's storm was quite bad, and it's not surprising that there were some serious traffic problems. That doesn't make them any less frustrating, though.
posted by alms at 8:11 PM on November 8, 2012

Do you mean yesterday during the Nor'easter? As far as I know, the snow line was a lot more east and south than was originally predicted. Depending on where you were, and depending on the minute of the day, it was either perfectly fine, raining, snowing, or icy.

If I had to guess I'd say they probably weren't prepared to plow because 1) it's early November, 2) a lot of the area was expecting very little snow, 3) there really wasn't much to plow, just a lot of freezing rain which they really can't do too much about.

Please don't take this the wrong way, I'm not trying to sound like a jerk, but have you lived in New England very long? Usually the roads, the Pike especially, are taken care of pretty well. Sometimes the weather is just really kind of crappy, it changes from safe to NOT SAFE very quickly (like, seconds), and cars just start sliding all over the road where a minute ago they were fine.

To answer your questions though, if you do want to register a complaint, as has been mentioned MassDOT and maybe your state rep.
posted by bondcliff at 8:14 PM on November 8, 2012 [17 favorites]

Were you stuck for three hours on the off-ramp or on the Pike itself? I'm just surprised because I didn't hear anything about a major backup on the Pike yesterday. I would have expected something like the Globe editorial alms linked to. I guess if it was a relatively small number of cars stuck on the ramp that would be less newsworthy, though equally frustrating for you! In addition to contacting MassDOT you might try contacting to the local paper or writing a letter to the editor.

I've gotten stuck on one particular off-ramp off I-91 in Western Mass more than once due to an accident on the road that we were all exiting onto. I was stuck on that damn ramp for 45 minutes once. It is so infuriating. And one time I *got into* an accident on the that same road which probably caused an equally miserable backup. It sucks so much because there's nowhere to go at all once you're on the ramp, but I don't know what anyone could do about it beyond completely rebuilding that road.

They did prep the Pike and I-91 in the Springfield area yesterday, though we didn't end up getting much snow (or anything else).

Oh also: the MassDOT traffic info is basically useless outside of the metro Boston area. Google Maps is better, though it still misses a lot.
posted by mskyle at 8:43 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that proper pre-treatment of the roads plus vigilant, continuing plowing would have kept the effects of the storm to a minor inconvenience

Is this your first winter in a snowy area? Because as mentioned above they can't always control the situation that well. Frequently the best thing to do is to stay off the roads during the storm and let the plow drivers get out there first. When there's traffic already on the roads and people start getting stuck they can't plow or salt and it all goes to hell in a handbasket like you found. You can certainly complain to your local representatives but getting a good sense of when to drive will come with time. Leave work early or stay and go shopping and wait till they get the trucks out there before you go. If there's been a storm don't even bother leaving my house to go to work until I see the sanding truck go past because I know the intersection at the top of the hill will be a disaster.
posted by fshgrl at 10:18 PM on November 8, 2012

Also you can't pre-treat for snow, that confuses me? Do you mean salting? That has to be applied on top of the ice to work.
posted by fshgrl at 10:18 PM on November 8, 2012

Honestly it has never occurred to me to complain to anyone about crappy roads during a weather event, and I live in Central New York, where crappy road conditions are pretty much the status quo all winter long. Around here the joke is that everyone forgets how to drive over the summer, and the first big storm results in a bunch of jack-knifed tractor trailers and flipped cars, no matter how well salted, sanded, and plowed the roads are. Some people drive like assholes, either because they don't know any better or they have too much confidence in their SUV/truck's anti-lock brakes. I've seen people with southern license plates pulled over with blinkers on, sometimes crying, when it's just lightly snowing and there's a bit of slush on the road. Some people just suck at driving in winter conditions, inconveniencing everyone who has a clue.
posted by xyzzy at 10:43 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might write to the Starts and Stops column in the Boston Globe---starts@globe.com---which does "consumer reporting" style coverage of issues related to commuting and travel.

I am sorry you had that experience. Being trapped for that length of time on a ramp sounds horrible.

But it also sounds like you're pretty new to the area? Because I join fshgrl in perplexity about what you might mean by "pretreating" roads, for instance. That isn't a thing here.

And in future if you have an issue on the Pike you need to call the state troopers, not the local police department. You can reach them by dialing *77. There was nothing the local police dispatcher could have done for you; to be honest, she was probably completely mystified by your call and assumed you just wanted to vent. The Pike is under the jurisdiction of the state police and local police only assist at the state police's request.

If it's any reassurance, I've driven in winter conditions all over the US and Canada, and the Mass DOT does a better job than most in clearing roads. The other day's storm was a freak occurrence---and came at a time when the DOT was already overburdened by hurricane cleanup---it seems like the tractor-trailers weren't ready for winter conditions. It isn't like that every time it snows by any means.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:57 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

fshgrl: you actually can pre-treat a road for ice and snow. They do it in Central IL with a brine solution:

The second major application of salt is for deicing and anti-icing of roads, both in grit bins and spread by winter service vehicles. In anticipation of snowfall, roads are optimally "anti-iced" with brine (concentrated solution of salt in water), which prevents bonding between the snow-ice and the road surface. This procedure obviates the heavy use of salt after the snowfall. For de-icing, mixtures of brine and salt are used, sometimes with additional agents such as calcium and magnesium chloride. The use of salt or brine becomes ineffective below −10 °C.

I'm not questioning the judgement of MassDOT, just saying that it is a legitimate option done elsewhere.
posted by sbutler at 11:03 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sure you can complain, but it won't do much good. There is a certain rate of snowfall, above which they cannot keep up with plowing.

And they can't plow a road where traffic isn't moving.
posted by gjc at 11:36 PM on November 8, 2012

Oops, apologies about the pre-treating. We have controls on the use of salt on so that's probably why they don't do it around here.
posted by fshgrl at 12:17 AM on November 9, 2012

First off, we don't do real-time fixing of snowy roads well. Once all the snow falls, Mass DOT is quite good at getting it all cleared, but it's hard to keep up with bad conditions -- particularly during rush hour, when congestion makes it difficult to clear things on a regular enough basis to make a difference. That's why they usually warn you about these storms and advise you to arrange your commute home around it, if possible. (Sometimes this backfires. Hello, 7 hours to go 5 miles through the city in December 2007)

But secondly, don't discount the drivers in this incident. DOT can only do so much before it's up to individual drivers to be smart about the conditions on the roads and to drive more slowly and carefully. Many don't bother, and they cause accidents.
posted by olinerd at 12:47 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi -- thanks for all your answers and suggestions for who will listen. In reply to the ?'s about my origins and length of time in MA, I've been here for 3 years and I grew up in central New York. My assessment of the roads is based on many, many snowy days spent observing in Syracuse what undrivable roads look like and how a road that needs or has had some care in order to be drivable appears. In my experience in CNY, being unable to venture out was usually caused by visibility issues, not because roads were unpassable. My experience in MA these 3 years is that roads in a snowstorm habitually look like nothing has been done....even several hours into a snowstorm, which makes me think that no one is monitoring them.

As for specifics, I was stuck 3 hrs on the Pike and only a short time on the offramp. THe blockage on the offramp obviously originated from all the way onto a town road, hence my assumption that calling the town police was proper. But that's part of my question, who is there to call when I'm stuck like that? (I have never heard of *77 before - thanks!) The problem was ultimately that tractor trailers had decided to make the offramp and the street beyond a parking lot. I ended up skidding through the ditch next to the offramp to pass a few trucks, making a spectacle of myself with the horn and lights, and the trucks eventually just moved. (THat's another thing I would like to bring up in 'complaining', the severe lack of accommodations for getting tractor trailers off the road in such a storm - they wouldn't resort to parking on offramps if facilities had sufficient capacity around here.)

Again, thanks for your answers and I understand that there's no magic solution, but feeling like no one even cares about this problem is what's going to drive me crazy. (p.s. I had read that article alms links to and its presentation of solutions and frustration that these things haven't been implemented is part of why I feel so desperate about it...)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 3:30 AM on November 9, 2012

Hi Tandem: you're absolutely right, MA is not terribly careful about its roads. Sometimes I think it stays that way because it's a good excuse for people to stay home by the fireplace/TV. And then you get the people who have no common sense and shouldn't be on the roads in ANY weather, let alone bad weather. MA is full of those, too, although I don't think we're unique.

I went up to Rangeley, Maine this summer - that is, the western mountains of Maine, where they must get some serious weather. Those roads were in absolutely beautiful shape. Those same roads, if they were in Massachusetts, would be nearly unpassable even in the summertime due to the potholes.

And keep in mind that things that rely on govt. spending have mostly gone to hell over the last 12 (32?) years, so comparing those things to the way it was when you were growing up is bound to lead to frustration. I do this all the time myself and it just drives you crazy.

Bottom line: if you live in MA and you can work at home, do so in bad weather. I worked at home yesterday morning myself. Avoid the aggravation if you can. No matter what MASSDOT does or doesn't do, the best roads will not save you from bad weather + people whose vehicles (or mental states) are in serious disrepair.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:50 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

MassDOT is in charge of maintenance on the Mass Pike, so that's who you should complain to about the clearing issues.

However, in light of your recent response, here is some food for thought.
Your standard for snow clearing is Syracuse, NY, which is the #1 metropolitan area in the country for average annual snowfall, at 115" per year average. I attended college in Syracuse, and I remember being impressed at how well Syracuse roads were kept drivable during the winter. A winter storm that would have shut down my native New Jersey for 2 days solid was not even considered "a storm" at all in Syracuse.

Essentially, you are using the best road-clearing team in the country as your standard. Syracuse has the most and best equipment, supplies, and expert plow drivers in the country - because they have to, or Syracuse wouldn't survive as a functioning city.

In contrast, Sturbridge, MA, averages only 68" of annual snowfall - only half what Syracuse gets. If you consider the idea that Sturbridge is only ever going to be half-as-good as Syracuse at road-clearing, you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

Lastly, this is the first storm, and also a very early-in-the-year snowstorm for Mass. Some of the snow & ice team drivers may not have been hired back yet - plow drivers are often seasonal temporary jobs. Additionally, the first time out is always one of the most challenging for the road-clearing team - it takes a little time for the plow operators and salt truck drivers to get "back in the saddle" after summer & fall, so to speak.
posted by Ardea alba at 5:55 AM on November 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

Just wanted to agree that having lived in Rochester, NY for 10 years then moving to Western MA, I was surprised at how poorly the roads were managed during winter weather. Upstate NY is *a m a z i n g* in their efficiency and attention. New England, not so much. I grew up along the coast in RI, and weather patterns are very different there than other parts of NE and NY, so I couldn't even use that as a comparison for how things are done in Boston or WMa.

That being said, your experiences driving in Syracuse make your more knowledgeable about how to drive in such conditions (1" snow a day for a month will do that!). Most people in southern and eastern NE don't have that kind of experience. So, alas, you'll have to deal with less-than-stellar road clearing practices and less knowledgeable drivers.

Also, I feel (but have no data!) that NE gets more freezing rain and ice than upstate, which is a very different animal to manage. It's "easy" to plow snow, you can't really plow ice, and ice is often much more dangerous.

On Preview: what Ardea Alba said.
posted by absquatulate at 6:07 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

In addition to the unexpected amount of snow in November, you might also consider that a lot of trucks and crews are in NY and NJ right now helping clean up from Hurricane Sandy. I don't know if it is the same people who would be plowing and salting roads, but it's worth considering.
posted by inertia at 6:31 AM on November 9, 2012

Upstate New York really is the gold standard of snow mitigation. Agree that MassDOT is not up to their level, so your frustration makes more sense to me, TandemAffinity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:29 PM on November 9, 2012

Wait a minute - did you get on at exit 10 in Auburn and tried to get off in Sturbridge? I was born in Central MA and live out here and would never take the pike between those 2 exits. Take Route 20. The backup between exits 10 and 9 is the norm, in my experience.
posted by andreap at 11:00 AM on November 10, 2012

Not directly related, but still a noteworthy for what it says about the management of highways in Massachusetts:
Mass state highway safety chief has long list of driving violations

Her driving record includes seven ­accidents, four speeding violations, two failures to stop for a police officer, one failure to stay in her lane, one driving without registration or license in possession, and one driving without wearing a seat belt....

Yet Sheila Burgess is director of the Massachusetts Highway Safety Division. Her mission is to reduce accidents by promoting good driving practices. She oversees public campaigns on the dangers of speeding, texting while driving, driving while impaired, and failing to wear a seat belt, among other hazards.
posted by alms at 3:30 PM on November 18, 2012

That didn't take long.

Mass. highway safety chief is removed.
posted by alms at 5:39 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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